ST. PAUL - St. Louis City SC went north up the Mississippi River on Saturday night to take on a Minnesota United team that can be, well, unpredictable at home. Minnesota has struggled to find consistent success at their home, Allianz Field, part of the reason they entered Saturday’s matchup outside of the MLS Western Conference playoff picture.
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For the visitors who’d already clinched a place in the playoffs, Saturday was about turning solid performances into a result. They did just that, defeating Minnesota 2-1, their first win on the road since July 8’s 1-0 win in Toronto.
A very rotated City took to the pitch in St. Paul Saturday night. It was a City without the likes of big stars Joao Klauss, Tim Parker, and Eduard Löwen, as head coach Bradley Carnell opted to give those who played a lot of minutes midweek against LAFC a bit of rest.
“Three games in eight days is never easy,” said Carnell postgame. “We made a decision to go with a lineup that was full of hunger, full of desire, full of speed and energy.”
Perhaps it was the largely-changed lineup, or the absolute deluge of rain that seemed to hover over the Minneapolis/St. Paul area throughout Saturday night’s match, but both teams came out a bit hesitant.
“Yet again, I thought it was a tight, tactical game in the first half,” said Carnell. “There was no space between the two teams, neither gave a millimeter here or there.”
City’s best chance of the half came in the 24th minute, thanks to a Tomas Ostrák layoff into the path of Célio Pompeu, who was making a darting run into the box. Pompeu then had a clear shot on goal, but straight at Minnesota United goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair.
Minnesota had the better chances in the first half, but lacked the finishing touch to turn those chances into goals. City team captain Roman Bürki had to make a few saves, but no shot posed any real threat to his goal in the first half.
Bradley Carnell thought his team was lacking that bit of edge that makes City click.
“What was missing in the first half, for me, was a little bit of our principles on the front foot, our forward defending, counter pressing, winning the ball up high,” said Carnell.
A rare blunder from Bürki in the first minute of the second half gifted Minnesota United a penalty kick. The Swiss shot-stopper spilled a bouncing ball at the edge of his six-yard box, and in trying to recover the ball, he got two handfuls of Minnesota midfielder Hassani Dotson.
Roman Bürki saw a yellow card for his football cornerback-like arm tackle, and Teemu Pukki beat Bürki to his right on the penalty to give Minnesota United a 1-0 lead. It’s Pukki’s fourth goal in five games for the Loons after a slow start after his transfer from Norwich City.
Ten minutes later, Bradley Carnell decided it was time for change, and brought on Eduard Löwen, Joao Klauss, and Aziel Jackson to try to shift the tempo and get City an equalizer.
“I just thought, games at this stadium tend to get a little bit wild in the second half, towards the end of games,” said Carnell. “Bringing on Klauss, AZ (Jackson), and Eduard Löwen just changed the complexion of our game a bit.”
Five minutes later, that substitution would be rewarded. City right back Jake Nerwinski swung in a cross in front of Dayne St. Clair’s goal, and Joao Klauss flew in to rocket a header beyond the Minnesota United goalkeeper for City’s first goal.
“When I got the ball, Klauss and I made eye contact,” said Nerwinski, talking through his assist. “He kind of pointed just to put it in (in front of goal), and I trust that guy. He can head the ball the best out of any attacker in this league, so I just put it up into a good spot, and he put it in.”
Bradley Carnell mentioned that City were a bit lacking in their patented high-pressing, high-tempo principles in the first half. Their second goal was an example of those principles at work.
Some good hustle by Eduard Löwen forced a turnover as Dayne St. Clair tried to pass to Minnesota defender DJ Taylor. Aziel Jackson ran onto the loose ball on the left, and played a low ball to Njabulo Blom, standing on the edge of the box in front of goal.
Blom settled the bouncing ball, turned and curled in a gorgeous strike to the top right corner of the Minnesota goal. It was a strike that any star goalscorer would be proud of.
With that kind of strike, you may be surprised to learn it’s Njabulo Blom’s first goal. Not just of this MLS season, but of his entire professional career.
That is a career that spans 120 appearances, mostly in the South African league for his old team, Kaizer Chiefs, this MLS season, and an appearance with the South African national team.
Over 8,600 minutes of soccer played, spanning multiple continents, before Njabulo Blom found the back of the net.
“I was so surprised, I didn’t know what was happening around me,” said Blom, on the feeling of scoring his first professional goal. “I saw my teammates so excited, I was like ‘What’s going on?’, and then I saw the ball in the back of the net.”
“I think it’s a miracle, to be quite honest.”
Blom’s miraculous effort proved to be the difference when the full-time whistle blew. The win for City puts them eight points clear at the top of the MLS Western Conference.
With the win, St. Louis City tied LAFC’s record for the most wins in an expansion team’s inaugural season in MLS history with 16. This record excludes what’s known as the “shootout era” of early Major League Soccer, where wins were awarded to teams who won hockey-style shootouts if the score was a draw after 90 minutes.
“Proud to be in the company of LAFC,” said Carnell following the match. “We’ve got three more games, and we want to continue to make history and make this club proud.”
The first of those remaining three regular season games for City is the rubber match in their three-game series with I-70 rivals Sporting Kansas City on Saturday night.
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